How We Do: Edges — The Origins of Baby Hair
"I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros." — Beyoncé
You've slicked down your edges with gel ever since you can remember. Laying them oh-so-carefully with a toothbrush — but when did you start? Why did you start? If you're like me, you can't remember. There's just an instant sense memory when I think about a jar of brown protein gel. I know exactly what it smells like.
For decades, stylized baby hair has become another outlet of creativity for many Black women. An accessory. A crown to complement the rest of our fly. "Everyone kind of has it for the most part. It is literally the hair around the perimeter of our heads," explained Buzzfeed beauty editor Essence Gant. "That extra step to be like, 'You know what? I'm going to style it,’ is something a Black girl would do. To take something so normal and make it intricate and detailed."
For those of us with tighter curl patterns, slicking down baby hair became a method of “looking presentable.” The waves we created along our foreheads with a toothbrush and styling gel mimicked the wispy waves found along the crowns of women with finer textures that were considered more acceptable. Generations of women became conditioned to the belief that your was not done until your baby hairs were laid. The second coming of the natural hair movement in the mid-2000’s led to conversations against the idea that Black women with tightly textured curls need to "tame" their edges at all.
Having extra short wispy hair around your hairline has historically been considered a trait that mostly women of color possess. A marker of an ethnic identity. 1930’s movie star Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Cansino, famously surgically removed her natural baby hair and pushed her hairline back to pass as a white woman. Decades later, Chola culture that arose from West Coast Mexican-American street culture, adopted the slick decorative gelled down baby hair style, too. Intricate baby hair became just as beloved in Latina and Afro-Latina hair culture as it had become in Black hair history.
Like most things created by women of color — specifically Black women — baby hair has recently become trendy in mainstream (read: white) conversations around style and has popped up on white runway models and celebs like Katy Perry and Kylie Jenner. It never fails to look greasy, but that doesn't stop them from trying.
Black women have always been innovative and trend setters as to what's hot in hair. As our culture and conversations around Black Hair evolve, what is the future of baby hair?
The Evolution of Baby Hair
Before we look to future Black hair trends, it's important to acknowledge the past. Black hair has a rich history that originated in Africa before we were sold into bondage. Various nations across the continent had culturally-specific hair styles that signified where you belonged, your family status and spirituality. When captured and snatched from their homes and families, enslaved people were forced to abandon the wide toothed combs, palm oils and clays needed to care for their hair texture. Braiding patterns like cornrows followed them into the new world, but the lack of resources left them without tools needed for Black hair to flourish. This provided white people with ammunition to strip us of our humanity. To them, enslaved Africans were livestock with lambs’ hair. Mixed-race offspring of white men who raped enslaved women were given better living conditions than those with darker skin and coarser curls. It set up a system of colorism that would haunt us for generations, and currently affects how way too many of us see each other.
After slavery ended, there became a need to sustain upward mobility. A need to establish wealth and independence; re-unite with lost loved ones and become recognized citizens of the nation they helped to build. Many saw upward mobility as establishing a Black middle-to-upper class that ran parallel to whites. They established Black Wall Street, Black universities and businesses. They also built a rubric around what were acceptable style choices and behaviors for “respectable negroes.” Hair straightening methods were developed with an emphasis on making hair look more "neat" and less "wild." In the book Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America, authors Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps talked to image consultant Harriette Cole who said, "When it came to hair for African-Americans, [the goal was] to have hair that was straight then curled — organized, with every strand in place. That was born out of a European aesthetic. So Blacks, particularly middle class [Black] people [who] were working and interacting with Whites, bought into that aesthetic and tried to become ‘American’ visually."
Innovators like Madame CJ Walker built empires off of Black hair care products and tools. Although it became commonplace to straighten one’s hair, over time it became more of a trend than a means to embody whiteness. Black Americans wanted to be fly on their own accord. In the ‘20s, zoot suits replaced regular suits and carefully crafted finger waves became a symbol of Black femininity. Finger waves was the earliest iteration of using heavy product to shape the hairline into designs. Artists like Josephine Baker became known for her swoopy sideburns and the curly cues adorning her forehead. Jazz singer Baby Esther, known for her scat singing and high-pitched voice, became the inspiration behind Betty Boop — a white-washed cartoon created for Paramount pictures.
By the time the ‘30s rolled around, highly sculpted hairlines had lost steam and began to be replaced by softer looks like the roller set up-do's made popular by singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Although not heavily styled, baby hair was not considered an afterthought. A lot of time went into making sure that edges were super straight and not a hair left out of place. Straight and swept back hairlines would go on to dominate Black hairstyles throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, until a 1960s socio-political movement known as the Black Power movement, allowed people of African descent to finally see themselves as naturally beautiful, especially their hair.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Black men and women embraced their textured hair and saw it as a connection to their African roots. Afros sported by activists like Angela Davis and Nina Simone became both a hairstyle and a statement. Straightening Black hair became an option instead of a necessity and although many abandoned their relaxers to connect to their kinks, some still chose to rock straighter tresses. The highly-sculpted hairlines of the ‘20s and ‘30s re-appeared in the seventies, but this time just the baby hairs in the front were gelled and sculpted rather than the entire tuft of hair. Using a toothbrush or a hard bristled brush, Black women smoothed their baby hair into squiggles and designs framing their face. Celebrities like Bernadette Stanis who played Thelma from Good Times, and LaToya Jackson became baby hair icons. Baby hair adorned afro puffs, long braids with beads, and slicked back ponytails.
The ‘80s were all about geometric hairstyles. The idea of an intricate hairline extended to an overall architectural hair aesthetic. Patti Labelle shocked and wowed audiences with her elaborate spiked dos and Vogue Ballroom icons like Octavia St. Laurent left the girls gagging with baby hair reminiscent of the ‘20s.
After the opulence of the 1980's had passed, the trends of the 1990's drew from hair trends of the past in a more modern way. Black teens chose updo's for prom that were updated versions of ‘60s boufant styles. Braids made their way back in fashion with stars like Janet Jackson and Brandy slicking down the baby hair that lined their box braids. Pieces of the ‘80s hair imagery stuck around in the 1990's with the hair featured in the movie BAPS starring Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle. And Missy Elliott brought the finger waves of the ‘20s back in her unique music videos. The one thing that remained the same over the decades was a laid hairline. By the 2000's it was clear that baby hair was the finishing touch on Black hair styles, but a second natural hair movement in late 2010's threatened our conception of what it means to look "finished" and presentable.
We are currently in the midst of the second natural hair movement and this time, Black women are armed with the internet. We can now talk to each other about hair care, hair typing and post hair tutorials on YouTube. Sales of relaxers plummeted as many Black women chose health over straighter hair. Black women with tighter 4C hair textures started to wonder if hair acceptance means embracing their natural curls, then why did they feel the need to force their hairline into submission? The internet went nuts criticizing Beyoncé for letting her daughter go out in public without her hair done, when in fact it looked beautiful. She just didn't force her baby hair to lay down as we had been conditioned to do. Writer Patrice Peck wrote an article for Buzzfeed titled "Just A Friendly PSA That You Don't Have To Lay Your Edges Down If You Don't Wanna" that featured curly baby hair as they naturally exist. Free-standing and beautiful.
There’s also the possible long term damage that can occur from doing too much to your hairline. Your edges are the most delicate part of your hair and the process of over-brushing them can be harmful. The baby hair conversation is evolving in such a way that is giving women a choice. Not having to have laid edges all the time gives the hairline a break and prevents traction alopecia and hair loss, which is a great thing for preserving our crowns.
So what is the future of baby hair? If the past has taught us anything it's that Black women have complete autonomy in how we wear our hair and as society shifts, we gain more options of self-expression. To lay down our edges or to let them roam free is a choice left up to us. One thing is for sure, Black women are the architects of baby hair and no amount of appropriation can change that.